Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Sunday, 26 April 2009 17:49 UK

The Little Ice Age and Scotland

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Scotland's temperatures were up to two degrees colder than today

Astronomers have reported that the Sun is at its dimmest for almost a century.

Some scientists believe a similar "quiet spell" is connected to a cooling of temperatures in a period of time called the Maunder Minimum.

Also known as the Little Ice Age, it lasted 70 years from 1645 to 1715 and featured The Great Frost which froze the River Thames in London for days.

Interestingly, this period coincided with some of the most dramatic events in Scotland's history.

A king was forced into exile, there was rebellion, famine, an ill-fated Scottish bid to establish a colony in Central America and a sandstorm buried a coastal estate.

The span of 70 years also saw the signing of the Act of Union in 1707 and the unsuccessful Jacobite rising of 1715.

At the moment there are no sunspots and very few solar flares - making our nearest star the quietest it has been for a very long time
The Sun normally undergoes an 11-year cycle of activity. At its peak, it has a tumultuous boiling atmosphere that spits out flares and planet-sized chunks of super-hot gas. This is followed by a calmer period
Last year, it was expected that it would have been hotting up after a quiet spell. But instead it hit a 50-year low in solar wind pressure, a 55-year low in radio emissions, and a 100-year low in sunspot activity

Temperatures in Scotland during the Little Ice Age were 1.5C to 2C cooler than they are today. In the summer, this shortened the growing season and devastated staple crops.

Dr Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, said climate change had to be considered among a range of factors that drove spells of unrest and hardship in the 17th and 18th centuries.

He said bouts of depopulation of the Highlands and Islands, which he described as being "on the fringes of climatic optimum at best", could also be connected to extreme weather.

The Maunder Minimum is punctuated by events that changed the course of Scottish history.

In 1603, a member of the Scottish Stuart dynasty, King James VI, succeeded to the English Crown.

Eighty-five years later - in the midst of the Little Ice Age - his grandson James VII (II of England) saw his place on the throne challenged by a government fearful of his support of Catholicism.

Encouraged by the government, William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant husband of James's elder daughter Mary invaded England in 1688.

The British army and navy deserted to William, and James fled to France.

Scottish Catholics, led by Viscount Dundee, fought for James at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 and won, but Dundee died in combat and the campaign collapsed.

James's attempt to regain the throne by taking a French army to Ireland failed and he was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The king spent the rest of his life in exile in France, dying there in 1701.

From the late 1600s to the start of the 18th Century there were troubled times in Scotland, which Dr Pollard believes could be linked in part to climate change.

He said: "We have what were called the Seven Ill Years from 1695 to 1702 when there were major crop failures and one of the spin-offs of that was the Darien expedition, an attempt to make good elsewhere but turned out to be a disaster for Scotland."

Scots signed up to and invested their life savings into the Darien Venture lured by the promise of rich, fertile lands and friendly Indians.

However, the attempt to raise a colony in an area of Panama in Central America ended in hundreds of deaths and the company set up to lead it losing more than £232,884.

Seven years later, Scotland joined England in the Act of Union. Part of the deal was the writing off of Scotland's debts, much of it a result of the venture.

The institution set up to administer this money eventually became the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Dr Pollard said the effects of the Maunder Minimum could be read in the records of landowners' rent demands, which were often paid in produce rather than hard cash and with drops in rental possibly a reaction to crop failures due to bad weather.

1689 - Battle of Killiecrankie
1690-1728 - Reports of Inuit appearing in Scotland
1695-1702 - Seven Years of Ill
1694 - Culbin sandstorm
1698 and 1699 Darien expeditions
1707 - Act of Union
1715 - Jacobite rising

The rise in stealing cattle - which happened in the Highlands and the Borders - may also have been associated with the colder climate.

Dr Pollard said: "If there was a crisis in arable farming, stealing the neighbour's cattle must have been appealing."

The late Prof HH Lamb, a world renowned climatologist, investigated the impact of the Little Ice Age on Scotland for part of his book Climate History and the Modern World.

He wrote of arctic ice expanding further south and of reports of Inuit people arriving on Orkney between 1690 and 1728. One was said to have paddled down the River Don in Aberdeen.

Snow remained all year round on the tops of mountains, including the Cairngorms.

Between 1693 to 1700, Prof Lamb said there were severe famines as crops failed.

Children were sold into slavery and two-thirds of the population died through cold and starvation, while many others were reduced to begging, drawing the climatologist to conclude that the fall in temperature and worsening weather hit the country harder than Black Death.

With weather patterns disrupted, fierce were winds battered the land.

In 1694, a sandstorm raged at Culbin on the Moray Firth near Nairn, burying homes and ruining an estate.

Marram grass that had kept the long and wide stretch of sands from shifting had previously been ripped up for thatching roofs and as fuel for heating.

Brian Fagan in his book The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 wrote of the local laird becoming a pauper in a matter of hours and appealing to the Scottish Parliament for tax relief.

John Martin, of Elgin, wrote of the storm at the time: "The wind comes rushing down through the openings between the hills, carrying with it immense torrents of sand, with a force and violence almost overpowering.

"Clouds of dust are raised from the tops of the mounds and are whirled about in the wildest confusion and fall with the force of hail.

"Nothing can be seen but sand above, sand below and sand everywhere. You dare not open your eyes but must grope your way about as if blindfolded."

Aurora borealis
Solar storms that result in aurora borealis could follow soon

Meanwhile, Gareth Jones, a climate research scientist at the Met Office, said there were increasing efforts to understand solar activity and the part it plays in climate change.

In measuring the Sun's brightness, he said there were only about 30 years of accurate measurements.

Since the mid-1970s satellites have made it easier to observe the Earth's nearest star.

But Mr Jones said the dimming the Sun was just one, and a less well understood, factor in influencing temperatures.

One of the greatest was volcanic eruptions which throw up dust, ash and sulphur dioxide.

In the upper atmosphere, the sulphur dioxide becomes droplets of sulphuric acid and this creates a veil, dimming sunlight.

Mr Jones said volcanoes were more active in the 17th and 18th centuries than they are today.

US space agency Nasa, which has been making some of the closest and most detailed studies of the Sun, said it was hard to predict how long its quiet spell would last.

However, it forecasted it would be followed by some of the most intensive solar activity in years with the effects of geomagnetic solar storms felt on Earth.

A storm in 1989 saw the entire province of Quebec, Canada, suffer an electrical power blackout.

Nasa said such events today would disrupt mobile phone reception, satellites and GPS.

But in the northern hemisphere - including Scotland - people will be able to see the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, an impressive natural light show in the night sky.

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